What a wonderful feast day today - the feast of St Thomas a Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury - put to death by King Henry II of England as the two clashed in a battle over the freedom of the Church. It was a battle which would be repeated five centuries later when another Thomas died in defence of the Church, martyred by another King Henry.
St Thomas a Becket was a man with a past - so we can all find comfort in him and in his conversion. As we look over the mistakes of our lives, we can be sure that all is not lost, God can still ask great things of us and offer us the graces to respond. Thomas changed when he achieved high office. He was ambitious, but when he was appointed to the highest ecclesiastical office in England, the Holy Spirit touched him and he became a humble man and a mighty defender of the Church's freedom.
And Thomas was a mighty defender. He was not afraid to stand up to his former friend, King Henry, who sought to reduce the Church to a department of state. In fact, Henry had Thomas appointed Archbishop of Canterbury because he wanted to control him. Henry exiled Thomas for refusing to be a lackie, but instead of isolating the Archbishop, Henry only increased Thomas's credibility and popularity among the faithful.
There is an important lesson in Thomas's life and example for our prelates. As secular governments try to control the faith of their people, and seek to haul the Catholic Church under its influence, our present prelates need the courage and tenacity of St Thomas to help them resist.
In Ireland our government is doing its utmost to undermine the Church and perhaps even nurturing the possibility of the emergence of a "national catholic church", another erastian monster to confuse the faithful. Indeed one of the big state-Church battles is about to break out: that of Catholic education: we need a Thomas a Becket to rise up to help us face the challenge. May God send us one.
Today I remember with fondness my visits to Canterbury Cathedral to pray at the spot where St Thomas was martyred. The Saint's tomb no longer exists: though Canterbury was one of the most important shrines in Europe in the Middle Ages, it was destroyed by King Henry VIII. St Thomas's body has disappeared. Various stories tell us that either Henry had it destroyed or the priests of the cathedral buried it in a secret place before Henry's soldiers arrived to desecrate it. There are a few ex ossibus relics of him though, and I was given one when studying in Rome. On both visits, I walked around the cathedral and prayed holding the relic in my hand and venerating it at the spot where he died. It will be brought to the faithful of Rathkenny this morning for veneration.
And so, today, let us offer a prayer to St Thomas for our beloved bishops who, like him, seek to govern, guide, protect, teach and sanctify the flock. Let us remember in particular those bishops who struggle to fulfill the requirements of their office: may the martyred Archbishop lay his gentle hand upon them and assure them of his loving presence and encourage them to heroism.